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Symptoms of a larger spectre

by on May 12, 2020

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Our democratic autoimmune system is experiencing severe inflammation

Previous to this pandemic, our discourse was neither civil nor consistent. While there was a modest change of tone in the weeks immediately following the shock of this shutdown, I fear we’re rapidly returning to the polarized political environment we lamented not to long ago. There’s even reason to believe it’s becoming worse.

This is relevant in so far as we desire democratic solutions and responses to this crisis. The subjects in this newsletter of late have had a strong emphasis on democracy, democratic institutions, and democratic culture, and while not naive, they have been hopeful if not wishful thinking.

We still hold on to the notion that nothing is inevitable, provided you’re willing to pay attention, and the next few weeks seem like a crucial time to be paying attention, as it feels as if we’re now starting to see society unravel. Don’t be fooled by the rush to resume retail operations, as the efforts to reopen are mere theatre in the face of a pandemic that continues to spread with speed and severity.

Instead we find ourselves in a period of perceived contradiction. The mixed messages from public health officials and politicians combined with the divergent views of the public, create the conditions for an already fragile and brittle society to break.

It’s not just the stress caused from being stuck inside with your family, and disconnected from your friends. Nor is it the increased economic precarity and uncertainty that is understandably driving many to return to work or at least desire as much.

Rather I think there is a growing fear, grounded in reason, and amplified by conspiracy, that this crisis is the nail in the coffin for democracy. That authoritarianism is lurking nearby, and like frogs in a pot of water slowly being boiled, we’re just passively watching it happen.

Perhaps not passively, but there is certainly a sense of powerlessness. Call it a consequence of effective measures that divide (and conquer) us all, making it really difficult for us to have the kinds of dialogue, discussion, and debate that democracy depends upon.

For regular readers of this newsletter, none of this should seem new. As an author, I feel a cyclical rhythm to this writing, where once a subject is introduced, it seems to keep coming back, reinforcing a concept or consequence. This is partly why email can be so liberating. There’s no need for an issue to be comprehensive or complete, as we can always send a new and updated one.

For example our issue from April 2nd, on the secret models predicting our future in this pandemic. Shortly after that issue was published, some governments in Canada started to share some (limited) details of their models and plans. Unfortunately, that’s not really happening in the US:

I don’t normally like linking to Bloomberg articles because they have a measure in place that prevents the embed above from showing the photo, etc, however this relatively short op-ed by Cathy O’Neil, one of the leading critical technology researchers in the US, is stellar. Here’s a quote:

Illustrative examples include a model that assessed public school teachers, and the “crime risk score” algorithms that decide, among other things, who gets jailed pre-trial. Both were deeply flawed statistical embarrassments intended to bypass tricky issues, such as what makes a good teacher and who deserves incarceration. Yet governments and companies keep using black-box models, because people — due to fear of math or lack of information –- so rarely challenge them.

If there was ever a subject that required a difficult public conversation, the response to Covid-19 is it. How many people are we willing to let die in order to keep businesses working? And which people will we let die? By creating a secret model to inform such decisions, the Trump administration is taking these questions out of the public and scientific spheres, replacing data-driven ethical debate with a pseudo-mathematical political tool.

On the one hand this undermines public health efforts as it puts little to no effort into public engagement and buy-in, focusing attention on the end of those efforts, rather than on why they’re necessary. On the other hand, it also makes it easier to enact bad or even worse corrupt public policy initiatives.

Industries as varied as oil refining, construction, fast food restaurants, and chemical manufacturing are seeking federal cash to support their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

Many of the largest lobbying forces are organized under the 501(c)(6) section of the tax code as trade groups. Corporations with similar concerns pool their money together to fund trade groups, which in turn employ thousands of lobbyists to shape elections and legislation on a daily basis. But the Paycheck Protection Program, the centerpiece of the small business rescue program, excluded such trade groups. That could change in the next round of stimulus legislation, which Congress is scheduled to debate later this month.

Lobbyists have stepped up a campaign to make sure professional influence peddlers are eligible for the PPP, or P3, funds. The push also includes a demand for an additional $25 billion for canceled events and other lost revenue from the coronavirus pandemic. Senior Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, plan to accommodate the demand and change the eligibility standard so that small business bailout money can flow to business advocacy groups.

I’m conflicted about this story, although it provides further context for our discussion today about democracy. For example, does the industry that has arisen around the development of policy and political priorities necessary for the functioning of democracy? Not all lobbyists are as crooked or sleazy as depicted by popular culture. I’d argue that most are legitimate representatives of industries, labour organizations, and communities.

Associations and trade groups number in the thousands, and reflect a significant diversity and wide range of interests. In many cases their revenues are generated by events, conferences, trade shows, and annual general meetings. With such events not possible for the foreseeable future, they’re facing financial difficulties like many other sectors.

However the optics or even ethics of funding such organizations are naturally complicated. Especially in a black box society where the automated decisions are beyond scrutiny and unaccountable. In these situations we lose the nuance necessary to understand the role of lobbyists and trade groups, and instead rapidly devolve in conspiracy as the primary means of explanation or narrative structure.

This is a great article about the rise of conspiracy in our contemporary culture, and in particular, amidst this pandemic. Here’s a relevant passage:

Whatever reasons one gives for their origins, dissemination, and functions, the proliferation of such theories has made it increasingly difficult to discriminate between actual “fake news” and fake “fake news,” as purveyors of the former disingenuously attempt to discredit those who were once trusted to make the discrimination. We now live in a time when the putative “leader of the free world” can defend himself against the accusation that he colluded to steal an election in secret with a hostile foreign power by claiming that the charge itself is a product of a “deep state” conspiracy against him. The tu quoque fallacy in which the accused turns around and claims that the accuser is hypocritically guilty of the same crime—a technique carried to perfection by said sitting president—works to muddy the waters still further. Or to mix metaphors, we are in a hall of mirrors in which the conspirator-in-chief turns out to be himself a major conspiracy theorist. However much he has brought it to perfection, it must be acknowledged that arguing fallaciously in this way has, alas, a venerable pedigree in the discourse surrounding conspiracy theories. When, in fact, the term became popular in the wake of the Kennedy assassination to dismiss those who doubted the official account propounded by the Warren Commission, the targets claimed in turn that the CIA itself had deliberately conspired to demonize them by calling them nut cases, thus doing what we would now call “weaponizing” the theory to prevent real investigations of inconvenient truths. 5

All of this has been widely discussed, and I’m not sure I have much to add to what has already been said about the alleged psychopathological roots of conspiracy theory and the means through which it has become so prominent a feature of our current political culture. 6 I want instead to approach it from a different angle: the relationship between conspiracy theory and what normally counts as responsible explanation in the human sciences, in particular in historical narratives. 7 For in so doing, we will perhaps better understand the position of such theories on a spectrum of plausibility. Instead of putting them clearly beyond the pale, viewing them as nothing but manifestations of irrational pathologies, magical thinking, and technologically abetted mass hysteria, we can better appreciate how hard, if not impossible, it will be to eradicate them.

The column above makes a well reasoned and compelling argument that conspiracy theories are not going away, but rather will increase as a symptom of our democratic decline. It argues, quite rightly, that transparency and an open society is the only possible antidote. Although it also argues that distrust of government is not a bad thing, yet so too is the indulgence in ludicrous conspiracy theory.

A potential parallel to draw here, is between conspiracy and algorithms. The column above argues effectively that we can’t blame algorithmically driven social media for the explosion in conspiracy theory, and I can can concede this, however there is an overlap between the faith placed in conspiracy, and the faith placed in algorithms.

The phrase ‘blessed by the algorithm’ expresses the feeling of having been fortunate in what appears on your feed on various social media platforms, or in the success or virality of your content as a creator, or in what gig economy jobs you are offered. However, we can also place it within wider public discourse employing theistic conceptions of AI. Building on anthropological fieldwork into the ‘entanglements of AI and Religion’ (Singler 2017a), this article will explore how ‘blessed by the algorithm’ tweets are indicative of the impact of theistic AI narratives: modes of thinking about AI in an implicitly religious way. This thinking also represents continuities that push back against the secularisation thesis and other grand narratives of disenchantment that claim secularity occurs because of technological and intellectual progress. This article will also explore new religious movements, where theistic conceptions of AI entangle technological aspirations with religious ones.

The late and great David Noble wrote a fascinating and chilling book on the religion of technology that I highly recommend (here’s a review by our friend Felix Stalder). We’ll dig deeper into this in a future issue, but I wanted to highlight this kind of thinking as I do feel it becoming relevant in this pandemic.

It underpins deterministic currents that argue we have little agency or room for debate amidst the pace and pressure of this pandemic. We have to keep reminding ourselves that in a democratic society (or a society like ours that aspires to be democratic) there is always room for debate and alternatives.

Over the next months, and maybe years, people are going to increasingly view privacy and public health as being in tension with each other. Has your view of how to approach privacy changed at all?

I think that is a false dilemma, because you can do so many things with technology that are not invasive of your privacy. I think that, very often, when people say it’s only doable in one way, it’s because they want the data for their own purposes. We have made a set of guidelines, and with member states we have translated that into a toolbox, so that you can do a voluntary app with decentralized storage, with Bluetooth technology.

You can use technology to track the virus, but you can still give people the freedom of choice, and, in doing that, people trust that the technology is for virus tracking and not for any other purposes. I think it is essential that we show that we really mean it when we say that you should be able to trust technology when you use it, that this is not a start of a new era of surveillance. This is for virus tracking, and this can help us open our societies.

What I like about this kind of thinking is that it does not reduce everything to a binary decision, but rather acknowledges there is a range of possibility. It is this range of possibility that holds the keys for increased dialogue and debate. If everything is reduced to binary logic, then there is only room for conflict. However when a range is possible, it’s easier to approach a problem with the possibility that your perspective or chosen solution may not be sufficient, and some modification or compromise is necessary.

That may be the silver lining, or the crack that lets the light in. Compromise is what this pandemic has been about, and compromise will have to be conspicuous if we hope to make it out of this.

If compromise is a democratic virtue, what are some of the others? What are the qualities we need to be cultivating and rewarding so as to foster a democratic culture and maintain the social contracts that keep us together? If we’re haunted by a sense that darker times are ahead, that authoritarianism is rising, what are the kinds of preventative actions we should be embracing and calling for?

Conversation and debate may seem trivial at a time like this, however I think it is exactly the kind of antidote we should be developing. It may be easier said than done, but understanding how we debate, how we disagree, and whether there is a better, more respectful way, seems rather relevant and applicable to this moment.

What do you think?

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Also note, that if you reply to these emails, I may not get your reply. Each issue generates a bunch of notification emails, and so reply emails are often lost in the mix. Instead please post a comment, as that way I will read it, and (generally) reply. Plus other members of the Metaviews network benefit from your insights as well. Hitting the like button for each issue also helps me know which topics are more relevant and of interest than others.

Finally, here’s the latest AxisOfEasy salon that touches upon many of the subjects in today’s issue (as well as our epistemology issue from last week).

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